Linking U.S. Memorial Day to Shavuot

Imagine if our all-night study sessions included not only discussions of Torah and Talmud, but also of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

This year offers American Jews the opportunity to miss the point of two holidays at once, with both Memorial Day and the second day of Shavuot falling on this coming Monday. Neither holiday is generally taken very seriously, and that's a shame, because they could be especially powerful in combination, helping point the way to a more compelling American Judaism.

Unlike Israel's Yom Hazikaron, America's Memorial Day - established after the Civil War ended in 1865 - is, for the most part, observed with picnics and sales to mark the beginning of summer, rather than as a somber day of remembrance and reflection.

And while Shavuot is important to the observant minority, many U.S. Jews are only vaguely aware of its existence. It is arguably the least-widely observed Jewish holiday in the United States. As a result, the typical American Jew this Monday will think deeply about neither holiday. And those who do observe Shavuot are likely to take note of Memorial Day only in that they are relieved at not having to use a vacation day to observe the Jewish festival.

At first blush, it would seem that Shavuot and Memorial Day have little to do with one another. Shavuot is an ancient Jewish harvest festival that, in its current incarnation, celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Memorial Day is an American holiday dedicated to honoring the memory of the soldiers who have died in America's wars.

But the two have a potential connection.

A memorial day for fallen soldiers recognizes that to truly stand for something is to be willing to pay a heavy price. As such, a memorial day practically begs the question, "What do we stand for?"

Israel's calendar, with its day of independence coming immediately after its day of commemoration, at least begins to answer this question. But answering the question of what we stand for with "independence" begs another set of questions: Why is independence important? What can independence allow us to do that we could not have done otherwise? Why is our existence important? In essence, the question returns to, "What do we stand for?"

Shavuot is all about this question. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the ancient rabbis refocused Shavuot from its origins as a celebration of the end of the grain harvest and the beginning of the fruit harvest, to a celebration of the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt.

The Jewish holiday cycle, as re-imagined by the rabbis, is built around an understanding that independence is not enough without purpose. Pesach is the Jewish independence day - the day that marks our becoming a free people - and Shavuot, scheduled a few weeks after the independence festivities have died down, seeks to answer the question of what we stand for, why we wanted and needed independence.

While some read "Torah" narrowly as the Five Books of Moses, we can understand it more broadly as the mission of the Jewish people. The kabbalists established the tradition of studying holy books all night long on the eve of the festival, which is a practice that can provide an annual opportunity to reflect on our national mission, on whether or not we are living up to our purpose and potential, and on whether our understanding of our purpose might benefit from revision now and again.

Judaism has in Shavuot a built-in opportunity for annual reflection on purpose, and the United States has a holiday dedicated to remembering that standing for something comes at a cost. These holidays come at just about the same time every year. Understood this way, the convergence of Shavuot and Memorial Day could be for American Jews the same sort of one-two punch that Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut provide so powerfully for Israelis.

Imagine a truly American Judaism whose leaders insisted that Shavuot was a time to reflect not only on the purpose of being a Jew, but also on the purpose of being an American, and on the purpose of being an American Jew. Imagine if our all-night study sessions included not only discussions of Torah and Talmud, but also of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, and on the connections between the values and ideas of Judaism and the United States.

And imagine if synagogues held Memorial Day services in which we said Kaddish for the soldiers - Jewish and non-Jewish - who have died to protect what America stands for (including our right to be American Jews ). Imagine if we began to observe Memorial Day as a kind of Jewish holiday, focused on the cost of living for a purpose and celebrating the lives of those willing to pay that price.

An American Judaism that takes seriously being both American and Jewish would get the attention of U.S. Jews and might give us a purpose worth sacrificing for. It will take serious time and effort to build. Monday is a good time to start.

Daniel Libenson is president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, a think tank and education center, and former executive director of University of Chicago Hillel.